Warning: The following article does not contain any references to humility or penitence.
Our lamb cake tradition began the year my mother-in-law decided to purge her kitchen cabinets of fifty years of accumulation. My husband happened upon the scene in time to rescue an old pan from which he could not bear to be parted. I’d never seen nor heard of it before, but dear husband spoke fondly of Easters gone by, when the family table had as its radiant centerpiece…the lamb. This was the mold from whence it came.
I examined the pan with skepticism and disdain. What did I want with an old lamb pan? After all, if she was throwing it out, who were we to interfere? And I certainly did not need someone else’s old junk in my cabinets; her trash pan was not my treasure.
You see, cooking is a touchy issue for me. I’m not a great cook, nor do I (like some) enjoy the process. It’s all about efficiency and necessity: do what must be done and get it over with. But my mother-in-law is the consummate fifties housewife. She bakes cream puffs from scratch and carefully arranges them on little doilies. She makes pancakes that would more properly be called crepes; it takes fifteen of them to equal a single Hungry Jack. In other words, she dishes up things that are inefficient and unnecessary. And she does it with style. I cannot compete.
Then there are my sisters-in-law. My husband is one of the youngest in a large family of boys, so my older sisters-in-law paved the way for me by making every imaginable homemade delicacy that a ravenous pack of boys might enjoy: perfectly fried eggrolls and crispy wontons; paper-thin sugar-cookie cutouts; mile-high red-velvet birthday cakes; and pies—all varieties, all the time.
When I married, I quickly found that any dish made to impress my darling spouse had been done, and done better, by those who’d gone before. In my tiny newlywed apartment, I spent a whole afternoon blithely peeling apples and rolling crust. Hubby was kind, but unimpressed. “Is this [name withheld]’s recipe?” he asked with trepidation. “Her pies are the best!” I saw the far-away look in his eye as he recalled pies of yore, and I knew I was like the cat who tenderly drops road kill at his master’s feet.
Twenty years later, I’d like to say I’m over all that pettiness. But I’m not. No matter that my culinary talents have soared to heights I never dreamed possible; as likely as not, my offerings are still not quite as good as my husband’s memory of what someone once made, long years ago. That is, until I was redeemed by the lamb.
As Dearest reminisced over the reclaimed lamb pan and cakes of Easter past, he chuckled. “The only problem with our lamb cake was that it never had a head.” My interest in the dull aluminum pan suddenly piqued.
“No head? What do you mean?” I nonchalantly picked dead leaves from a withered houseplant, one ear cocked ever-so-slightly toward him.
“Well, every year the darn thing’s head came off. Mom never could get it to stay on. We gave her a hard time over that head!” He sniggered as he thought about it. I casually took the pan under my arm and strolled away, plans for triumph slowly forming in my mind.
It became my mission to birth the greatest lamb cake ever sliced by man. I scoured the internet for recipes, finally settling on a dense cream-cheese pound cake—guaranteed to provide firm neck support. The frosting was trickier. There was the fluffy, seven-minute boiled-variety. Or cream cheese, to match the cake? In the end, I went with a thick buttercream—the one that goes on the red velvet cake. Should the head be tempted to depart, the frosting would act as cement and prevent any embarrassing mishaps.
I mixed my batter with gusto. Bur when it was time to fill the pan, I encountered a serious glitch. My inherited pan did not come with instructions, and it was suddenly obvious that this mold had a significant design flaw. The pan had two halves—front and back—that fitted snugly together on three sides. The bottom, however, was flanged and open, so that the mold would sit upright inside a tight-fitting bottom lid. In other words, I had a pan that would be filled with thick batter, and the only opening was on the bottom.
Faithful to my motto, “act in haste, repent in leisure”, I turned the pan upside-down (balancing it on the thin top edge) and filled it up. I snapped on the bottom/lid, flipped it right-side up again and quickly slid it into the oven. At least I had the foresight to set the mold on a large baking pan; raw lamb was soon oozing everywhere.
Out of the oven it came. I assessed the damages and tried to stem the leaks Back into the oven it went. I dusted off my hands and called it good.
When at last the baking time was over, and the cake cool enough to handle, I oh-so-carefully loosened the sides of the mold and ever-so-gently lifted them away from the tender cake. My children gathered in awe for the unveiling of this long-awaited marvel. As the top of the pan pulled free, we could at last see the cake in all its glory! A gasp went up from the crowd.
It was headless.
Whereas my mother-in-law had trouble keeping the head on, it seemed that ours had never existed. When the batter oozed out of the bottom, just enough was lost so that no amount of rising and swelling could fill the cranial cavity of the poor beast.
As the disappointed onlookers dispersed (not without a few hoots and cat-calls) my brain whirled. On the counter were two loaf-sized cakes that I had baked with leftover batter. Inspiration struck. I ripped a few hunks from one loaf and shoved them into the head-portion of the mold. It was a mold, after all. I hadn’t suffered through years of Play-Doh for nothing. I packed the cake into the head as tightly as I could, and snapped on the back. I twiddled my thumbs while elevator music played, and when I could stand the suspense no longer, I popped the mold open again.
There, before me, was a perfect—if somewhat Frankenstein-ish—disembodied lamb’s head. I used several toothpicks to join it with the pre-existing neck and body, and it looked like it was born that way. A thick coating of buttercream later, and my lamb could have made it through airport security without a second glance.
The kids had fun sticking jellybeans in the face to create its mild ovine features and creatively added a few black jellybeans to its nether quarters to serve as…well, you know. Quite realistic, too.
It was the radiant centerpiece of the Easter table, and my mother- and sisters-in-law were all green with envy. Well, not really. But everyone did admire it, and at least a couple of people ate it, including my loving husband, who proclaimed it “Delicious!” No one ever knew about the toothpicks, either.
Lamb/Cream Cheese Pound Cake
- 1 – 8 ounce package cream cheese
- 1 1/4 cups butter
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 2 1/2 cups white sugar
- 6 eggs
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract (may substitute almond, lemon, etc.)
- Let all ingredients come to room temperature.
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Grease and flour lamb mold. (Extra batter may be baked as loaves and frozen.)
- In a large bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy. Add sugar in a slow, steady stream beating until well-incorporated.
- Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour all at once and mix in. Add vanilla.
- Pour into lamb mold. Bake at 300 degrees F for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Check for doneness at 1 hour. A toothpick (or bamboo skewer) inserted into center of cake will come out clean. Extended baking time may be necessary to achieve doneness; check every five minutes until the center is done. *Lamb mold cooking times will vary.*
- Cool cake for fifteen minutes. Gently unmold cake, or follow pan instructions.
*Recipe make approximately 8 1/2 cups of batter.
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups butter, softened
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
In a medium saucepan, whisk the sugar and flour together. Add the milk and cream and cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil and has thickened, about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature in fridge or freezer. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add butter. Beat with electric mixer on low until thoroughly incorparated. Increase speed to medium high and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and continue mixing until combined. (From Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Their red velvet cake is pretty special, too!)
Lamb may be frosted when cooled. Decorate with candies of your choice, coconut, ribbons, etc. Note: choose your decorations wisely or your Easter lamb will look like an Easter poodle.